blivet

From Space Science News but I got the original pointer from slashdot.

February 18, 2000 — Yesterday, a medium-sized solar flare erupted from a sunspot group near the middle of the solar disk. It was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) that appears to be headed directly for our planet. There’s no cause for alarm — CMEs aren’t dangerous to people — but this one could trigger beautiful aurorae and other geomagnetic activity when it passes by our planet around February 20.

I’ve never seen the Aurora, as I imagine it, it’s completely awe-inspiring.

More on Kennewick: before we get into the Reuter’s story and my comments I need to mention that NOVA broadcast Mystery of the First Americans on February 15, 2000. This was an excellent show on Kennewick and the issues surrounding the skeleton and its interpretation. Though it has been criticized by certain members of the professional community for not coming to a resolution, I think it accurately represents the professional community’s lack of concensus on this issue.

from Reuters Some Native Americans Had Neanderthal Roots. Loring Brace, a specialist in bone measurements at the University of Michigan in discussing the "European-ness" or "Ainu-ness" of the Kennewick skeleton (and other human skeletal material on this continent that are over 7,000 years old) says that it is easily explainable through the common Neanderthal ancestry of both the European and Ainu population groups. (continuing from the Reuters story):

It is a controversial theory because most scientists believe that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead-end, people who lived side-by-side with the Cro-Magnons who were the earliest Homo sapiens but who did not interbreed with them. “To produce a modern European out of a Neanderthal, all you have to do is reduce the robustness,” Brace said. Scale down the heavy teeth, jaws and brow of the Neanderthal and you have a European, he said.

<begin blivet commentary wherein we probably place foot in mouth and chew> First, let me issue a disclaimer of bias and tell you where I stand, both intellectually and <deity or construct of choice> forbid, somewhat emotionally (you may pick up your rocks and rotten produce now). I think that the human fossil record represents a continuum, and that Neanders are an ancestral, relic population of Homo sapiens adapted to Pleistocene glacial environments. They are representative of the range in the plasticity of the human phenotype. Having said that, back to Brace’s comments. I think this (his comments) begins to position the debate where it should be, refocused on the issues of human ancestry that have been swirling in Anthropology for decades, away from who "owns" these human remains and the heavily politicized repatriation litigation.

The debate is rooted in hoary nineteenth-century science, and from my perspective seems to distill down to the continuing debate of concerning human evolution of multi-regional development v. Out of Africa. Which is to say that the Reuters statement of "most scientists agree" is simplistic news reductionism. If someone were to stand at the podium of the upcoming AAA (American Association of Anthropologists) meeting and proclaim that "Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead-end and did not interbreed with modern humans" you could witness "most scientists agree[ing]" in the ensuing shouting match. (Actually, it might be fun to watch from a distance.)

We’ve having problems talking about the populations of the New World ten thousand years ago because we can’t lucidly speak of the skeletal populations of Asia, Africa, or Europe ten thousand years ago. The sample size for all of these populations is amazingly small and there is far from any consensus regarding the phenotype of these groups. We have a larger number of complete T. rex skeletons than Paleoindian skeletons for crying out loud. We are feeling our way in the half-light of partial knowledge, but typically speaking as though the "facts" are known. Simply put, we need to make the statement that infuriates non-scientists: more work needs to be done. I would put forth for further investigation that there were multiple groups that came to the New World (a la Turner) over several thousand years, all representative of the eastern Asian populations of the time, and that those populations, through time and genetic drift, became progressively more "Asiatic" in phenotype. We need more study of the skeletal populations of Asia. The earliest Paleoindian groups resemble the present-day Ainu who, because of the Ainu’s reproductive isolation – they still resemble (skeletally) that earlier population. The fact that we can even speak of the Ainu as a distinct group in eastern Asia is testament to ongoing changes in the human phenotype and the value of studying populations that have isolated themselves, either through cultural or geographic means, and retain phenotypes distinct from the larger population.

This will continue to confound those that do not realize that science is a process, a way of doing things, not a belief system or an intellectual destination. Science done in the open is too much like the old adage concerning sausage making. If you see everything that goes into it, you might think there is something wrong with it. In science we occasionally pursue things that don’t work, we abandon positions we’ve passionately held for years, we may cling to positions knowing that there is contrary evidence. But if you present someone who claims to be a scientist with evidence that refutes their position, they must revise or change their position, or they’re not a scientist. The problem is, the farther away from Math, Chemistry, and Physics you get, the scarcer those irrefutable facts get. Out here in Anthropology-land, they’re pretty scarce. Still, it is science, it can be well reasoned, and it does approach the ‘facts,’ as we understand them. Just remember they are always subject to revision.

Granted, this does not address other burning issues such as the arrival of lithic blade technology in the New World, or ‘whose’ ancestor are we speaking of. Personally, I’m not sure anyone "owns" the skeletal material. These issues of power and control seems to only perpetuate the reification of the past, making me, as an Anglo New World archaeologist, forever relegated to perform "the Archaeology of the Other", unless I’m doing certain types of Historic investigations. In the Zen sense, this is classic dualistic thinking, aggravated and perpetuated by the allegiance to a certain German philosopher whose last name begins with "H". We’re all connected, we’re all one, a single group of humans on this pale blue dot. To perpetuate anything else is delusional. It just may be bad science as well.